Alex and Ernie Isley on Aaliyah’s Intergenerational Appeal
Good music can time travel. Aaliyah Dana Haughton was fifteen years old in 1994, when she released her cover of the Isley Brothers “(At Your Best) You Are Love.” The song debuted in 1976, almost three years before Aaliyah was born. In young adulthood, she’d take what was then a modest success for the Isleys and turn it into one of her biggest hits. Even after her tragic death in 2001, Aaliyah’s rendition spanned generations. It soundtracked the teenage love affair in the 2006 cult classic film ATL. It was taken on by Frank Ocean in 2015. Over Zoom, Ernie Isley, who wrote “At Your Best” for the group, explains the song’s humble beginnings. “We never released that as a single. It was just on the Harvest for the World album,” he told Rolling Stone.
Now, Ernie Isley’s daughter, singer Alex Isley, has made the song her own, teaming up with Spotify to share her turn at one of the 20th century’s greatest love songs. “As we started brainstorming ways to honor Aaliyah, not only because her catalog was coming to Spotify, but also as we were approaching the 20th anniversary of her death, Alex’s name came up,” says Mjeema Pickett, Spotify’s head of R&B and soul. The younger Isley has four EPs, two albums, and one Tiny Desk to her name. “We thought she would be a perfect fit to not only honor Aaliyah’s legacy but as a nod to her own legacy.”
A childhood fan of the late star, Alex sings with Aaliyah’s gentle allure. “There’s definitely a lot of influence and a lot of inspiration from her,” Alex says of herself. At 34, Alex is from a generation with tangible memories of Aaliyah as a performer, some still with CDs and MP3s of hers, while younger enthusiasts have a much different relationship with the singer. “I’ve spoken to so many of the fans, some of them are 14 years old,” says Kathy Iandoli, author of the new biography, Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah. “She’s very much a Gen Z icon, but they’re so removed from the music.”
Though Aaliyah’s “At Your Best” has been available through streaming for some time, most of her catalog has been withheld from digital distribution and reprinting, with (ongoing) tension between her estate and her label, her uncle’s Blackground Records, which owns most of her masters. Her arrival on streaming services opens a portal for fans young and old to intimately explore her timeless body of work. Here, Alex and Ernie Isley discuss Aaliyah’s enduring gifts, music’s perseverance, and Alex’s take on a cultural and familial gem.
Alex, what is your relationship to “(At Your Best) You Are Love”? What memories do you have attached to it?
Alex Isley: This is very much just a full-circle moment for me because I remember hearing Aaliyah’s version for the first time. I think, oddly enough, I didn’t hear the Isley Brothers version until I was a little bit older. It just really shed a light on the impact that my family has had. I had always been emotionally tied to the song knowing that my dad wrote it and my family did the original version, and then as I got older and got to know my feelings and got to experience having feelings for someone else, I could relate to the lyrics. I had come to understand that they’re sweet lyrics, but it’s out of frustration.
Ernie, tell me about creating the song.
Ernie Isley: The first time I played it after I had initially written the song was for my brother Rudolph, just voice and guitar. When he heard me say, “You’re a positive motivating force within my life,” he got this quizzical smile on his face, like how? The syllables and the notes — he goes, say that again? Then he sort of nodded his head like, yeah, that’s pretty good. And that’s one of the things that I think captures the emotion in the song. That song was expressing the way I felt towards someone. And sometimes you can feel a certain way towards someone and they don’t always get it. So it was both like an affirmation and kind of a frustration too because it does say, “You may not be in the mood to learn what you think you know.”
What was your reaction to the Aaliyah cover, Ernie?
Ernie: When I first heard it, I liked it. I had no idea that it would be such a big hit for her, much less a signature hit for her. And then she did two versions of the song. There was one that had a little bit more hip-hop feel in the music, then there was the first one that was similar to the Isley Brother version, but either way, she made the song hers. The hip-hop-MTV-rap guys, as they came to the forefront, were leaning on different songs from our catalog. They embraced us and we embraced them back. We had to give [Aaliyah’s cover] a green light — Ronald gave the green light. She did actually have a chance to meet and talk to Ronald. She expressed how much she loved the song. I never had a chance to meet and talk with her, but she was a big Isley Brothers fan.
Alex, what was your vision for your version of “(At Your Best) You Are Love”?
Alex: I’m absolutely influenced by my dad and uncles but also growing up in the ’90s, I’m influenced by the R&B and hip-hop from that decade. I was just trying to find a balance between old school and new school. Of course, with a cover song, I want to approach it and add my spin to it, but respectfully — not taking away from the integrity of the original version.
When did you first perform the song, Alex?
Alex: This was my first time recording it, but I’ve played and sung it before. Going to UCLA, I would often sit in the classroom at the piano and just play stuff and. I would play that song in particular.
Alex, what does Aaliyah mean to you?
Alex: I remember “Back & Forth” when it first came out. I remember hearing “(At Your Best) You Are Love,” her version, for the first time. I remember hearing “One In A Million” and so many hits from her catalog for the first time. She’s definitely made an impact on my artistry. I think too, with the producers that she worked with, I mean, Missy and Timbaland, they really helped to start a new genre. The sound that she crafted with Missy and Timbaland is so unique and that definitely influenced me when I started producing.
You’re both significantly younger or older than Aaliyah would be today. What do you think Aaliyah means or has meant to people around your age?
Alex: I remember I was just getting ready to start high school when she passed. And so even though she was a few years older than me, she just seemed so much older in that she just seemed like she had so much wisdom about herself. She just seemed like she had been around and doing this for a long time. The way that she moved and everything that she had done in such a short time was just so impactful. You can’t talk about ’90s R&B and not talk about her. She was one of the trailblazers for so many artists that have come after her. You can name anybody, especially as far as women in R&B and even women in hip-hop — they’ve been influenced by the aesthetic. Her look, her fashion — she had a sense of mystery about herself. She’s been influential in that way too.
Ernie: It was a shock to hear about one day out of the blue that she lost her life in a plane crash along with other people. We looked upon it with a sense of disbelief, but music has a way of connecting people across generations. And I’m glad that that song being done in 1976, 45 years ago now…some people are just discovering it or rediscovering it. Alicia Keys is going to be doing a version of “(At Your Best) You Are Love” — putting the finishing touches on it now. I know some people will be hearing it for the very first time. Aaliyah’s catalog is about to be available in a way that it never was before. So in that way, the song would be amongst the stuff that’s coming out too, [that] some people will be hearing for the very first time.
The songs are very important. They are the connecting thread. It’s possible for any artist song-wise to go forward, whether they use a song that’s already been written and performed, or whether they come up with their own. But when your life is cut short, you just get into the what-if aspects of the artist. For Aaliyah, it falls into that category of the what-ifs, but she had a great sound. She was very nice looking. She had an unusual name, but it was catching on! It was growing even up until the point of that accident. There’s enough of a footprint on her part that other singers, particularly women singers, have a touchstone. They can go from there and take it forward.
Ernie, how did you feel when you first heard Alex’s recorded version of “At Your Best”?
Ernie: Well, I was impressed with Alex when she was singing in a high chair. She had on diapers singing the Sesame Street song before kindergarten. She’s been singing for quite some time. I hear a lot of her music. I hear about her music from other people. And nobody’s more proud than her papa.